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State of the County: Underfunded, Protested

Sid Leiken, chair of the Lane County Board of Commissioners, put a positive spin on hope for the poor state of the county’s finances during his State of the County address on Jan. 7. Leiken focused on the positive improvements in areas such as community health, while members of SLEEPS (Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep) protested outside Harris Hall to advocate for the homeless. 

Later that same night a protest was held to call attention to County Administrator Liane Richardson’s controversial decision to shut down protest in the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza. Holding signs that said, “free speech has no curfew,” a group of 20 protesters chose not to leave the plaza when police arrived to enforce the 11 pm curfew. Many protesters, who had originally planned to get arrested for their First Amendment rights, left the plaza because they found out that as a result of a trespass citation they, like SLEEPS advocate, Occupier and activist Alley Valkyrie, whose citation for protesting in the Free Speech Plaza in December spurred this protest, would be unable to attend Eugene City Council or Lane County Commission meetings as a result of her trespass citation. 

The Eugene Police Department reported about 100 people came to the late-night protest, 18 were cited and two were arrested. The protest was broadcast live on Ustream and the interactions between cops and activists appeared amicable and at times jovial. Arrestees were swiftly cited and released.

Among those cited was a recent Army veteran (82nd Airborne Division) who said he was getting arrested for the right to free speech that he had gone to war for. Two 16-year-olds were also cited and the group ranged from students to a protester who celebrated his 68th birthday by getting arrested for his free speech rights. 

Earlier that day in his prepared remarks, Commissioner Leiken said: “I am happy to report that Lane County as a government, Lane County as a people and Lane County as a growing, thriving community, chose to use these hardships we were presented with to refine us, to shape us and to better us.” 

Those hardships have included the recent closing of Womenspace’s free walk-in and referral service for victims of domestic violence, loss of funding to key county programs and the weekly releases of prisoners from the Lane County Jail due to lack of funds. Conservative board members have advocated for more logging to boost county funds.

Commissioner Pete Sorenson, newly elected to a record fifth term, said in his prepared remarks that he would work to protect “our veterans, seniors, the unhoused, crime victims and those with disabilities.” He also said he would work to end “systemic discrimination against Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos — as well as any other group who’s traditionally suffered from discrimination,” and work for for gay and lesbian rights. Sorenson said he would “work to defend freedom of speech and assembly and advance animal welfare and public health. I will work to protect our climate and to reverse the warming trend and damage — doing all I can to get jobs created and restore the environment.”

The County Commission’s list of committee and agency assignments that range from public safety to housing was posted on Jan. 8. Out of 38 committees and agencies, Sorenson, the longest-serving and most experienced commissioner, was listed as being on only two: liaison to the Long Tom Watershed Council and the Law Library Advisory Committee. 

Though he is listed as serving on the Housing Policy Board, Leiken did not mention the issue of homelessness in his address.

UPDATE:

Mayor Kitty Piercy, upon hearing the trespass citations would keep people from being able to attend City Council meetings, tells EW:

"You should know that it's important to me for that all our community members can come to a City Council meeting. While I respect the county's rights to make decisions regarding visitors to the county building, it's not okay with me for them to determine who may attend or speak at a council meeting.   I have asked staff to work with the county to ensure that no one is blocked from our council meetings by the county."